Woodward with his ubiquitous cigarette

In any field, there are people with such prolific skill and clarity of thought that their work sometimes resembles more a piece of art than science. To understand how the pieces of a puzzle can be fitted together in unexpected ways takes a particular kind of thought.

In synthetic organic chemistry, one such mind belonged to Robert Burns Woodward. Synthesis is even now regarded as something of an arcane science, with an element of art to it. This mostly stems from the fact that – for all our knowledge – you can never be completely sure that any new reaction will work the way you expect it to until you actually mix the stuff up in the lab and try it.

But, by all accounts, Woodward seemed to have a knack for understanding molecules and the way they fit together. As a schoolboy he read chemistry journals and experimented in his spare time, but he got off to a slightly rocky start as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, US. After his first year he was expelled for neglecting his formal studies, but the following year was re-admitted to the university and completed his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in a single year each. His PhD thesis is available online here, describing his synthesis of the steroid hormone oestrone – no mean feat for a 20-year-old. Reading it gives you an idea of his eloquence in describing and writing about chemistry – I can only imagine what it must have been like to attend one of his famously epic lectures.

Woodward’s synthetic prowess is evident from the enormous list of molecules that he and his students managed to bend to their will. Not least were vitamin B12, strychnine and a (slightly controversial) synthesis of quinine – molecules that had stumped the greatest minds in the field for years beforehand.

Arguably his greatest skill was his ability to understand the intricacies of reaction mechanisms, combined with rigorous planning of each synthesis and thorough analysis at every stage – principles to which every good chemist should subscribe.

But more than that, Woodward’s syntheses contain a spark of the artist – there is a sense of elegance over brute force; of knowledge and intelligence being applied with consummate skill to conquer any problem. His approach was contagious – probably in no small part down to his enormous number of students and collaborators, and it is fair to say that he changed the face of synthetic chemistry, so that’s why I’m nominating him as my chemistry hero.

Who are your chemical heroes? Join in the debate and see everyone else’s answers here

Phillip Broadwith

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My hero: Robert Burns Woodward, 9.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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